It’s 3 hours and 18 minutes into Sunday. The house is quieter than it is during the day, and the world is quieter than it has been in my lifetime, coronavirus being what it is, etc. etc. It’s de riguer but also totally authentic to notice — as often as every second of the day and night — how different things are now. Within the urban landscape that I choose to call home, the rhythm of life is more aligned now with that of the sun. On a typical Saturday night in my neighborhood, until midnight or beyond, the sounds of human activity follow you from room to room. The crescendo and decrescendo of footfalls and subwoofers approaching, passing by, and moving along. Snippets of conversation that you can overhear even through ear plugs — betrayals, reminders, “can you believe he said that?” The urgent possibility of hell over the church loud speaker. Every so often a cry or a scream — and you can’t tell if its laughter, stretching, cumming, or murder. But these days, no matter what day it is, as the sun sets, a curtain of quiet comes down and it’s hard to tell whether you are 500 feet from 50 people, 5 people, or no one at all.
Today (well, yesterday) was such a good day. My little family took a long walk in the woods. My kid had a violin lesson in which it was clear to her, to me, and to her teacher, how far she has come into herself through the labor of learning to play. We then swept and tidied our back porch and filled our planters full of flowers that had been selected and assembled in a wagon for contact-free pickup at the nursery by a benevolent, faceless stranger. Somehow, it was so much sweeter than having chosen the flowers ourselves. What delight is this? I wondered to myself as I pulled a verbena plant from among the tangle of foliage and read the cryptic instructions for its care through a film of dirt on the accompanying label. We ate so well all day, thanks to my partner’s kitchen genius. Without going into every detail suffice it to say: homemade pita. We had dinner with friends via zoom and it actually felt like we were able to connect, despite an unstable internet connection. In short, it was one of those days when you feel that perhaps it is better to be alive after all — the answer to a question you didn’t even realize you were asking yourself from behind your mask.
Now I’m laying in bed next to the person who came through me into this world. I’ve stared at her in her sleep for what feels like so many hours over the last 8-and-a-half-years but I still can’t get enough of her features. I’m sure all parents feel this way about their children, but I find her to be just so perfectly made. My gaze travels from her jaunty cowlick, to the familiar geography of her ear, to her long eyelashes, to the dimple in her chin that is both younger and older than she is. I reach out to stroke the soft rise of her cheek with just one small plane of my index finger, not wanting to wake her. She stirs and takes a deep breath and I make my body completely still and then her breaths return to their somnolent regularity and I begin again to drink her every feature in. The birds are beginning to sing their morning songs now out in the hushed world and the moment zig zags, expands, and accordions out of itself and I feel aware suddenly, to whatever extent is actually possible, of everything. I am flooded with wonder at the fact of her.
If I had to put a name to the thing about me which motherhood has wrought, it is this: I am constantly flooded with wonder. Certainly this capacity was already latent in me, and I’m not saying it’s true for all mothers or has to be true, but for me, bringing E into the world and raising her has made manifest the light in everything. And this throughline of wonder is connected to the physical fact of her body having been made in mine, of her having come into being from nothingness through the portal of me. I am unsettled by the gendered nature of the term “motherhood” and by the way that essentialist ideas of gender are projected onto parenthood to differentiate “fathers” from “mothers” and by the way that biological parenthood is reified above other avenues to parenthood. No gender or body has exclusive claim on any of the vast experiences of parenthood. And yet, within the context of my own life, my sense of myself as a parent is linked to my sense of myself as a mother, which is connected to my sense of myself as a woman, which is in turn mapped forever onto the experience of giving birth to E. When I was giving birth to her, I had a realization as I was struggling to let go and accept the incredible sensations that would accompany her birth. I realized that for her to live, I would have to accept the possibility of death. And in that moment, I did. For her to live, I was willing to die. It sounds terrible, but it was just the opposite. I realized that my understanding of myself could expand to include another person and by extension everyone. This realization happened in my body, my mind, and my heart, all at once, the proverbial ZAP! Like the trickle of water high on a mountain that feeds the river below, that moment continues to animate my capacity for empathy, my understanding of love, my shock at the ongoing fact of war and other forms of brutality, my hunger for the world to be better, and the abiding sense of wonder that never leaves me, no matter what is happening in the inner or outer world. Each of us came through someone to enter this world! I mean, how effing incredible is that? And how precious we are, each of us. As sacred as the whole world.
Laying here thinking of wonder, I pick up my phone and log in to check on one of my patients, whose death was expected to be imminent. I had checked in just a few hours ago when I woke up and it was hard to tell from the notes what was happening, but now when I log in, I see that he has died. It’s tempting to think that perhaps that is why I woke up at 2:21am, for no apparent reason. Perhaps he was passing out of this world. He wasn’t my child, my loved one, mine to mourn, and yet still I weep. I can feel a shift in the world with him no longer in it. I hadn’t gotten to know him before his long illness left him sedated on a ventilator — I only had one interaction with him as he played a video game and tried to tune out the reality of the hospital around him — but I had gotten to know his mother well as she faced what would be his last weeks. As I weep, I feel that my tears are not for him, but for her. I imagine her, sitting by his bedside, stroking his face, memorizing his features, knowing that soon the wonder of his physical body would no longer be hers to hold and touch and admire. I am sorry I never asked her to share with me the story of his birth. I wish I could know what it felt like to touch him for the first time, and then for the last. I want to know — both as a kind of inoculation against the possibility of this kind of grief in my own life, and as a way of helping her carry the burden of it — what it feels like to have your body be the only physical evidence on earth of your child’s having lived.
The sun is rising now and soon my household will stir awake and it will be Mother’s Day. E has all kinds of plan for me — a pedicure on the porch, a surprise gift, a special meal. Telling me about her plans before bed, her eyes sparkled with mischief and excitement and delight. In honor of all the other mothers I have known who can no longer touch their children with their own hands, I will savor every minute of it.